After everyone’s temperature was checked and a small band played, about 30 people sat in chairs spaced apart in the parking lot of the South Side’s General Richard L. Jones Armory on Saturday afternoon.
Fifty years ago to the day, the limestone building with symbolic carvings at 5200 S. Cottage Grove Ave. had its name changed from Washington Park Armory in dedication to Brig. Gen. Richard L. Jones. Jones was a Black military leader who served in both World Wars and was a United States Ambassador to Liberia, among other endeavors.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush and Jones’ son were all in attendance to the Illinois National Guard’s celebration of the anniversary as well as recognition to the Illinois National Guard’s almost 150-year history in the community. Oct. 17 is also known as Brigadier General Richard L. Jones Day, which was proclaimed by former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.
“I just want y’all to know how tremendously proud I am today,” Pritzker said at the podium in front of the armory. “To be the Commander in Chief of Illinois’ citizen soldiers is one of my most solemn duties in office because the men and women of the National Guard are the best of Illinois and, in fact, they are the best of our nation.”
The ceremony began with a recognition of the history surrounding Jones and the Illinois National Guard. In 1871, Black community leaders formed the Hannibal Guard, said speaker Lt. Col. Jason Carter. It was accepted into the state’s militia seven years later, but it was disbanded and regained admittance multiple times. The unit formed the center of what became known as The Fighting Eight, and the current soldiers of the 178th Infantry Battalion are descendants of them.
“Gen. Jones, a decorated World War I and World War II hero, who ensured the lineage of the nation’s first all Black and all Black-led National Guard unit would not be lost in the integration of the armed forces,” Pritzker said. “He ensured the 178th infantry carried on the legacy of the Fighting Eight at a time when their country still refused to serve Black Americans like him.”
Speaker, retired Maj. Ronald Murdock, said that he hopes the state of Illinois “continues in its pursuit of excellence.” He said he hopes to see more young Black men and women embrace the Illinois National Guard, which was the only state to send an all Black unit to fight in World War I.
“But many of them are unaware of what you have to offer, so it has come upon you to reach out and bring them in to you,” Murdock said. “Look at where you are, you are in our midst. So it’s your responsibility to reach out to them.”
Brig. Gen. Rodney Boyd was one of those Black boys from the South Side, he said. He grew up 14 blocks north of the armory and remembers seeing men and women in the armory at the Bud Billiken Day Parade, wearing their uniforms inside fancy vehicles.
“I said, ‘One day, I’m going to wear that uniform,’” he said. “If there’s any doubt that this community does not need a facility like this in it, then shame on you. It’s because this facility in a community like this is what influences people like me to dream big and go for the stars and eventually get one.”
U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, an honorably discharged veteran, said he served in the U.S. Army for four years, five months, 28 days and about 13 hours and couldn’t wait to get out and join the Civil Rights Movement. He spoke to how Black soldiers had been fighting alongside white soldiers since the Civil War, on both sides, but the military still has a lack of high ranking people of color, which he hopes to see change.
“We celebrate the Black community and Black military individuals,” Rush said. “I dedicate myself to make sure we have more Blacks, more Asians, more Latin Americans who are in the top positions in all the military branches in our nation.”
Maj. Gen. Richard R. Neely, the Adjutant General for the Illinois National Guard, said Jones’ legacy expands beyond the community and state into the nation. But Jones also helped strengthen the connection between the National Guard and community.
Neely then addressed how the media has talked about the National Guard being sent to Chicago:
“You can’t help but know that the National Guard is a big part of this community and a big part of Chicago.”
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